Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Absolving Nader

Just a quick observation about this useful tweet:
As Sargent notes, causality is a concept that trips up even very intelligent people. I remember being very puzzled when I first ran across the following line of argumentation. The argument goes: "Democrats like to blame Gore's loss on Nader. But Gore didn't lose Florida because of Nader. He lost because he didn't campaign well enough in Florida, and therefore didn't get enough votes." There are various ways of "proving" that Gore ran a bad campaign, from the fact that he lost his home state of Tennessee to the fact that many self-identified Democrats in Florida voted for Bush.

The implicit theory of causality here is that there is exactly one cause for any phenomenon. Once you've identified that cause, all other possible causes have been logically excluded. So to prove that Nader was blameless for Gore's loss, all you have to do is identify a non-Nader reason that Gore lost.

(As a quick aside... I seem to remember that Matt Yglesias got into an argument with a fairly prominent leftist over this issue on Twitter. But either he deleted the tweets or Twitter's search functionality is poor. You'll just have to trust me that seemingly intelligent people make exactly the argument I've described, almost word for word. Oh... it might have been Matt Bruenig. He's deleted his old tweets. I can't say for sure who it was, but I distinctly remember there being more tweets from Yglesias on this issue that I cannot now find.)

Now in fairness there is a germ of a coherent idea here, which is that everything has infinitely many causes, and it is often useful to make judgments about the relative salience of them. And at that point there really is a certain amount of "rivalry," so that attributing additional salience to one cause tends to reduce it for others (though of course it is more complicated than that). But the thing to recognize is that if you take this approach, then you have to engage with the actual considerations that go into determinations of salience. There is no easy logical proof along the lines I outlined above. If you want to absolve Nader, you have to explain why we shouldn't attach blame to a person whose actions were an obvious and predictable but-for cause of the election of George W. Bush. Simply identifying other causes is not the category of argument that you need to make.

Anyway just an observation. I wish people weren't so unreasonable about things like this.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Anonymous Sources and the Media Landscape

This post by Benjamin Wittes, explaining how to interpret anonymous sourcing in news stories, is very helpful, and it reminds me of something I've long believed. The gap between an "ordinary" consumer of the news and an educated reader is vast, and in between are countless layers of sophistication and pseudo-sophistication. In many ways we are living in different worlds and have no way to understand each other.

And there's really no way around this. We can do better and worse, but the vast majority of people simply aren't equipped to navigate the media without guidance. This leads to various pathologies, and it's sort of pick your poison. Once upon a time, people got their information from network news and local newspapers, and it was fairly trustworthy but also slanted in certain ways, and laughably inaccurate in some areas. Now the filters have largely been removed, and people get news from everywhere. It is not nearly as trustworthy overall, but its ideological slant has been scrambled, and certain truths are easier to find now.

A key point is that the effect has not been the same across different levels of education and intelligence. For smart, reasonable people, it's now very easy to get information from dozens of excellent sources. Twitter, especially, gives people remarkable insight into how journalism is done, if you are paying attention. I wouldn't say recent developments are unambiguously good for smart, educated people, but it's close.

For people at the other end of the spectrum, everything is hugely dependent on what they happen to see and whom they happen to trust. Someone who simply listens to NPR while driving to and from work every day is going to do okay. Someone who tunes into Fox News or (God forbid) gets news from conservative Facebook or Twitter sources is going to be inundated with endless tendentious crap.

And that's pretty much the whole game. Just as alcohol producers make the vast majority of their revenue from people who drink too much alcohol, ideological news organizations make their biggest inroads among people who lack the tools to assess what they are reading/seeing. Probably the vast majority of news consumers can't even be bothered to think about journalistic sourcing at all, much less with the degree of sophistication that Wittes suggests. The propaganda on Fox News, which seems laughably inept to anyone who knows what is going on, is in fact terrifyingly effective. The point has never been to reel in smart people. They are not swing voters.

So as with so many things, it's increasingly a two-track world, with the "elites" going one way and the masses going another. And the distances are vast.